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Craig Handy Quartet at Sunset Jazz Club

Patricia Myers By

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Craig Handy Quartet
Hommage a Dexter Gordon
Sunset Jazz Club
Paris, France
July 8, 2016

Tributes to noted jazz musicians are frequent throughout Europe, especially in Paris. Each "hommage" centers on the hits and compositions of a star, performed by a musician with a high skill-level for the instrument identified with the honored one. For this two-night booking, it was a salute by New York tenor saxophonist Craig Handy to Dexter Gordon.

Handy's style parallels Gordon's: a big sound, spacious phrasing, long melody lines, and playing behind the beat in a laid-back Lester Young style. By 8:30 p.m. on this Friday, Sunset's low-ceilinged, white-tiled underground space was slowly filling. It was gratifying to hear more native-French speakers seated in the first few rows than tourists. French of varying ages are well-versed in the America-born art of jazz, and show it with frequent attendance.

As usual in Paris, the music started 20 minutes later than the announced time. That was no biggie, being common in this "Golden Triangle" of three longtime Paris jazz clubs on rue des Lombards in central Paris (dual-level Sunset-Sunside, Le Duc des Lombards, Baiser Sale') and elsewhere in the city's 20-some venues.

The quartet played "LTD" (a k a "Long Tall Dexter") as the first of the set's five lengthy pieces. Handy launched the swinging arrangement with a robust opening burst, American-born expat pianist Kirk Lightsey matching the leader's "burn" during his own solo. European acoustic bassist Nicola Sabato delivered snappy phrasings, while American-born expat drummer John Betsch added propulsive fire. Lightsey had worked with Gordon in the U.S. starting in 1979, and was on a May 1981 Atlanta club gig that was recorded live and released in 2004 as Dexter Gordon Quartet Atlanta, Georgia, May 5, 1981 on the Storyville label.

Before announcing the second song, Handy spoke words that should be barred from any paid performance, music or otherwise: "We've never played this book together, so I hope you'll bear with us as we wind and wiggle our way." Apologies are never encouraging to an audience, and very rarely made by the pros. I began listening for glitches, but didn't detect any blatant ones in "I Told You So" by pianist George Cables, a longtime Gordon colleague The combo was solid, Handy proving he could deliver Gordon's tone, muscular power and stylish freedom.

Donald Byrd's "Tanya" was the third chart, and after an acoustic bass intro and a brief tenor solo, the rhythm section exuded the highest energy of the set. Lightsey was super-charged on two extended solos, one of which included a stunning chromatic scamper, followed by bassist Sabato's inventive intensity and Betsch's diverse percussive bursts. Handy used more of the horn's richly resonant upper register of his horn within the closing section.

The set's only ballad, "Ernie's Tune," offered a change of pace in this bebop-swing outing. Handy treated its plaintive melody with a more ethereally light tone. Gordon composed and named the song for a character in the New York City play "The Connection." When it was staged in Los Angeles in 1960, he contributed three other songs and played a role as a soft-spoken junkie jazz musician, demonstrating his acting skills long before his film roles in "'Round Midnight" in 1986 and "Awakenings" in 1990.

The lively "Cheese Cake" was the most recognizable Gordon chart played, Handy's exuberant bop phrasing further elevating the impact of the quartet's tribute. Hearing it made me crave more memorable Dexter Gordon hits, such as "Blues Up and Down," "Dexter Rides Again" and "The Chase." But the choices for this set on opening night left more to be desired. Maybe it was the leader's jet lag, and maybe the second set and subsequent night's show included some of those, even Thelonious Monk's beloved "'Round Midnight" from the Paris-based film of that title.

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